October 13, 2015

Bastiat on Sincere Plunder

By In Blogs, Brian Jacobson

First I (Brian) will simply remind you that Frédéric Bastiat’s book The Law was written in 1850, as the preacher says “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun,” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). It might be important for us to master the old books before we keep writing our own and pretending we are the first ones to think of something or that the Bernie Sanders is bringing “fresh, new, and innovative” ideas to the “national conversation”. “My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” (Ecclesiastes 12:12).

(From Frédéric Bastiat The Law pg. 18-21):

Legal plunder has two roots: One of them, as I have said before, is in human greed; the other is in false philanthropy.

At this point, I think that I should explain exactly what I mean by the word plunder.

I do not, as is often done, use the word in any vague, uncertain, approximate, or metaphorical sense. I use it in its scientific acceptance — as expressing the idea opposite to that of property [wages, land, money, or whatever]. When a portion of wealth is transferred from the person who owns it — without his consent and without compensation, and whether by force or by fraud — to anyone who does not own it, then I say that property is violated; that an act of plunder is committed.

I say that this act is exactly what the law is supposed to suppress, always and everywhere. When the law itself commits this act that it is supposed to suppress, I say that plunder is still committed, and I add that from the point of view of society and welfare, this aggression against rights is even worse. In this case of legal plunder, however, the person who receives the benefits is not responsible for the act of plundering. The responsibility for this legal plunder rests with the law, the legislator, and society itself. Therein lies the political danger.

It is to be regretted that the word plunder is offensive. I have tried in vain to find an inoffensive word, for I would not at any time — especially now — wish to add an irritating word to our dissensions. Thus, whether I am believed or not, I declare that I do not mean to attack the intentions or the morality of anyone. Rather, I am attacking an idea which I believe to be false; a system which appears to me to be unjust; an injustice so independent of personal intentions that each of us profits from it without wishing to do so, and suffers from it without knowing the cause of the suffering.

The sincerity of those who advocate protectionism, socialism, and communism is not here questioned. Any writer who would do that must be influenced by a political spirit or a political fear. It is to be pointed out, however, that protectionism, socialism, and communism are basically the same plant in three different stages of its growth. All that can be said is, that plunder is more visible by its partiality in protectionism, and by its universality in communism; whence it follows that, of the three systems, and by its universality in communism; whence it follows that, of the three systems, socialism is still the most vague, the most undefined, and consequently the most sincere.

 Be that as it may, to conclude that legal plunder has one of its roots in misconceived philanthropy, is evidently to put intentions out of the question.

With this understanding, let us examine the value, the origin, and the tendency of this popular aspiration, which pretends to realize the general good by general plunder.

The Socialists say, since the law organizes justice, why should it not organize labor, instruction, and religion?

Why? Because it could not organize labor, instruction, and religion, without disorganizing justice.

For, remember, that law is force, and that consequently the domain of the law cannot lawfully extend beyond the domain of force.

When law and force keep a man within the bounds of justice, they impose nothing upon him but a mere negation. They only oblige him to abstain from doing harm. They violate neither his personality, his liberty, nor his property. They only guard the personality, the liberty, the property of others. They hold themselves on the defensive; they defend the equal right of all. They fulfill a mission whose harmlessness is evident, whose utility is palpable, and whose legitimacy is not to be disputed. This is so true that, as a friend of mine once remarked to me, to say that the aim of the law is to cause justice to reign, is to use an expression which is not rigorously exact. It ought to be said, the aim of the law is to prevent injustice from reigning. In fact, it is not justice which has an existence of its own, it is injustice. The one results from the absence of the other.

But when the law, through the medium of its necessary agent — force — imposes a form of labor, a method or a subject of instruction, a creed, or a worship, it is no longer negative; it acts positively upon men. It substitutes the will of the legislator for their own will, the initiative of the legislator for their own initiative. They have no need to consult, to compare, or to foresee; the law does all that for them. The intellect is for them a useless lumber; they cease to be men; they lose their personality, their liberty, their property.

Endeavor to imagine a form of labor imposed by force, which is not a violation of liberty; a transmission of wealth imposed by force, which is not a violation of property. If you cannot succeed in reconciling this, you are bound to conclude that the law cannot organize labor and industry without organizing injustice.

When, from the seclusion of his cabinet, a politician takes a view of society, he is struck with the spectacle of inequality which presents itself. He mourns over the sufferings which are the lot of so many of our brethren, sufferings whose aspect is rendered yet more sorrowful by the contrast of luxury and wealth.

He ought, perhaps, to ask himself, whether such a social state has not been caused by the plunder of ancient times, exercised in the way of conquests; and by plunder of later times, effected through the medium of the laws? He ought to ask himself whether, granting the aspiration of all men after well-being and perfection, the reign of justice would not suffice to realize the greatest activity of progress, and the greatest amount of equality compatible with that individual responsibility which God has awarded as a just retribution of virtue and vice?

He never gives this a thought. His mind turns towards combinations, arrangements, legal or factitious organizations. He seeks the remedy in perpetuating and exaggerating what has produced the evil.

For, justice apart, which we have seen is only a negation, is there any one of these legal arrangements which does not contain the principle of plunder?

You say, “There are men who have no money,” and you apply to the law. But the law is not a self-supplied fountain, whence every stream may obtain supplies independently of society. Nothing can enter the public treasury, in favor of one citizen or one class, but what other citizens and other classes have been forced to send to it. If every one draws from it only the equivalent of what he has contributed to it, your law, it is true, is no plunderer, but it does nothing for men who want money — it does not promote equality. It can only be an instrument of equalization as far as it takes from one party to give to another, and then it is an instrument of plunder. Examine, in this light, the protection of tariffs, prizes for encouragement, right to profit, right to labor, right to assistance, right to instruction, progressive taxation, gratuitousness of credit, social workshops, and you will always find at the bottom legal plunder, organized injustice.

Written by Brian Jacobson

Brian Jacobson works as a quality technician for a manufacturing company in St. Louis, Mo where he lives with his new bride. He studied biblical and theological studies at Reformation Bible College under R.C. Sproul in Orlando, FL. He’s an Old-School Presbyterian who enjoys the simple means of grace, Machen, and living the high life on a budget. Follow him @briankjacobson on Twitter.